Mead, Margaret (19011978)
Dictionary Home
AnthroBase Home
Bookmark, cite or print this page

American anthropologist of the culture and personality school; student of Boas and Benedict; close collaborator with the latter, and with Gregory Bateson, who was her husband during the 1940's and 50's. Mead - one of the most widely read of all anthropologists - was also a social activist and an early spokeswoman for gender equality in the United States, and her work and countless public appearances had a major influence on the formation of modern American feminism.

Mead did fieldwork at the age of 23 in Samoa (Polynesia) in the 1920's, and the resulting monograph, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), with its description of "free" Samoan sexual practices and its strong thesis that gender differences were culturally, rather than biologically, determined, became a major bestseller, which has been constantly reissued and translated into many languages. After Mead's death, this book became the subject of a major controversy, centering on the New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman, who criticized Mead's data for major inaccuracies, and indeed, attempted to discredit her conclusions altogether. In the resulting, often highly emotional debate, recognized scholars spoke out both in defense of Mead and in support of Freeman. The discussion is clearly complicated by political issues, since an attack on Mead might seem to be a simultaneous attack on the feminist and cultural relativist positions that she became a symbol of.

In the 1930's, Mead did fieldwork in New Guinea (where she met Bateson), on Bali (pioneering photographic fieldwork with Bateson); in the 1950's, she did fieldwork in Manus, of the Admiralty Islands (Polynesia). During the Second World War she cooperated with Benedict and others on a methodologically innovative project to study a number of national cultures by anthropological methods - "at a distance" (by means of interviews with émigrés, studies of media, literature, pedagogical texts etc.).

Mead's influence is great, not only in feminist anthropology and gender studies, but in psychological anthropology, studies of socialization and youth.


To see texts on AnthroBase dealing with Margaret Mead, see:
http://www.anthrobase.com/Browse/Cit/M/margaret_mead.htm